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Uncle Vanya

The Etiquette of Death

Despite contributions from such notable downtown talents as Penny Arcade, John Jesurun, Taylor Mac, and Edgar Oliver, Chris Tanner's two-and-a-half hour enterprise does not hold together.

By New York City
Lance Cruce, Brandon Olson, Agosto Machado
in The Etiquette of Death
(© Ves Pitts)
Lance Cruce, Brandon Olson, Agosto Machado
in The Etiquette of Death
(© Ves Pitts)
A panoply of downtown talent -- including Penny Arcade, John Jesurun, Taylor Mac, and Edgar Oliver -- have contributed to The Etiquette of Death, currently at La MaMa E.T.C.'s Ellen Stewart Theatre. However, despite a few individual moments of brilliance, the overall enterprise does not hold together.

The project is the brainchild of Chris Tanner, who also stars (in drag) as Joan Girdler, a talk show hostess with her own line of beauty products, Etiquette Cosmetics. Joan's literal conflict with Death (played by Ridiculous Theatre legend Everett Quinton, who also co-directs along with choreographer Julie Atlas Muz) is the throughline within the show.

Joan offers to give Death -- referred to with feminine pronouns here -- a makeover so that she and her "hench-bitches" (Machine Dazzle, Matthew Crosland) will not take Joan's terminally ill son, Joey (played soulfully by Brandon Olson, who delivers the most grounded performance within the show). Unfortunately, the Joan-Death exchanges lack the depth needed to give the production momentum.

The best segment of the script is a monologue written and performed by Agosto Machado as Esmeralda, Joey's nurse. The speech, simply delivered, addresses the roles of caregivers during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and how that has shifted as time has gone on.

The most bizarrely entertaining performance comes from Beth Dodye Bass as Jacky in a pair of scenes set in a restaurant (adapted from a piece by Mac). As Jacky's friend Holly (Robert Appleton) talks on and on about the deaths of friends of theirs, Bass as Jacky eats the food served to her in hilariously compelling fashion.

Unfortunately, these bright spots within the production are overshadowed by some truly bad performances, such as Angela DiCarlo's turn as Bella whose early-in-the-show song "Funerals in the South" derails the enterprise after it has barely begun. And in fact, the show's musical numbers never really spark to life, despite the presence of a fairly good seven-piece band, under the musical direction of Jeremy X. Halpern.

Quinton and Muz's direction of the show's material also leaves much to be desired. For example, a segment written by Arcade about the first person she knew that died reads much better on paper than it is performed by a chorus of pigeons feasting on the recently slain bodies of a couple of gay male soldiers that Death has capriciously killed.

Ultimately, the bulk of the blame for this tedious two-and-a-half-hour production must rest with Tanner, whose lackluster performance as Joan Girdler is one of the show's biggest problems. And despite a team of dramaturges, he does not seem to have known what to do with all the material he had gathered from his impressive list of collaborators.


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